When I mentioned my flat’s plan to start playing Dungeons & Dragons, my dad made a face. “Isn’t that game for nerds?” And I knew what he meant. Despite featuring in hit shows such as Community, Stranger Things and iZombie, D&D has been unable to shake the image of the lone geeky, misogynistic, basement dweller. This stereotype pervades nerd culture, especially the fantasy genre, featuring as many sexualised women, abusive relationships, and rape plotlines as you’d expect from an episode of Game of Thrones.
In a shocking twist of events, this stereotype is, in fact, a stereotype, covering only a small percentage of D&D players. Dungeons & Dragons is a communal game, comparative to escape rooms, or any team sport, just with more imagination. It can be an excellent way to bond with new potential friends or deepen any existing friendship, especially if you’re looking to solidify your friendship circle at uni.
I spoke to some fellow players, both men and women, about their experiences playing D&D. It was noted that less girls tend to play than boys, and that some male players disrespect female characters in the game – one quoted a fellow player saying that they ‘weren’t hot enough’. Female players noticed some disparity between the roles of male and female characters in the game – their characters were used more often for seduction and negotiation than any male characters – but generally felt as welcome and included in the game as their male peers.
If it isn’t the treatment of women that’s preventing girls from playing, then what is it? It might be argued that girls just ‘don’t enjoy’ the game, but I think that’s nonsense. Both the Dungeons & Dragons campaign I play and Monster of The Week game I run have a majority of female players. They feel safer to play in our majority-women friendship circle, whilst our male friends who play are fully aware of the misogyny that persists in nerd culture.
Despite this, male players that I know seem reluctant to play as female characters. When I asked a friend why, he explained he’s “not a good enough character actor to play anyone who isn’t me”. This is actually a fair point, but one of the reasons I enjoy the game so much is that allows you to create characters, thus enabling you to explore aspects of yourself (think West World, but with less literal murder of arguably sentient beings).
In an article, comedian Tina Hassannia described that “Dungeons & Dragons has left me feeling empowered in a way Beyoncé never has”, a sentiment that I’ve absolutely experienced. She notes “It’s the perfect game for someone still coming to grips with who they are, trying to understand their place in the world. By building a fictional character, you essentially learn to build your own self”.
The idea of developing and understanding yourself is not only a great reason to play, but also gives an explanation for why the game is especially popular with younger people.
And this development of a deeper understanding of yourself, further deepens your friendship with the people around you. For young women, I would argue that this self-exploration is particularly significant.
And not just as a way of exploring themselves, but specifically their femininity. Rather than encouraging girls to step outside their gender expectations, to play more masculine characters, and become comfortable with a violent, aggressive fantastical world, we should start valuing the healers, the negotiations and interpersonal relations that are crucial to a ‘good’ game. Femininity is already part of games like Dungeons & Dragons – I would go as far as to argue that the interpersonal and problem-solving skills you get from games like these are essential for everyday life, especially at university. These characteristics just need to be respected when expressed by female players.
As someone who, at fifteen, used to claim she was ‘not like other girls’, I’ve always had a complex relationship with my own femininity (and frankly, I think that complex relationship is true for every woman). Playing D&D and taking the lead on similar games has encouraged me to not only grow creatively, but to better understand myself. Through the characters I create, and their traditionally feminine skills and behaviours, I’m able to better understand the inherent strength of femininity – specifically, my own.
For anyone who is unsure of who they are, especially the girls reading this, go and play Dungeons & Dragons. If nothing else, it’s a good excuse to drink, let out your frustrations on some goblins, and spend some time with your friends.